The Fine Art of Bellarte

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Ralph Sitero is one of those rare chefs who have mastered both the ancient art of traditional Italian cookery and the intricacies of 21st century personal computing.

If he's doing a special dinner, the announcement arrives via e-mail in a well-designed attachment. Some of the relationships he might have formed originally over a steaming plate of pasta, he continues electronically. It's an unusual versatility that serves him well; he's among the legions of computer users who are happy Internet traipsers of the whole world.

Perhaps that's why he seems so joyous with his newest restaurant venture, Bellarte: It is located amid the bay area's biggest tech companies, giants like Danka and Tech Data, and hundreds of their smaller brethren, which have taken root along the eastern side of the Pinellas peninsula.

It is an oddity that St. Pete, formerly the dowdy retirement haven, now is the unlikely home of one of the cutting edges of the nation's computer industry. It is a blessing for Ralph and his 200-seat Bellarte restaurant because many of his customers are savvy, sophisticated employees from nearby firms, who sip drinks at the curvy bar and occupy the restaurant's chic tables.

Specializing in creative seafood and steaks with an Italian flair, Bellarte resembles a 2002 snapshot of St. Pete herself: an elegant meld of the old and the new. The setting is friendly but formal, the food unusually ambitious, imaginative and expertly done.

Maybe one reason the food is so good is the long culinary sojourn that carried Ralph to St. Pete: "I couldn't afford to go to culinary school," said Sitero, 36, in a telephone interview. "So, I just went out on my own." He did a two-year culinary apprenticeship in Rome, cooked in Perugia and other places in Europe, before finally touching down at one of the most eminent restaurants in the U.S., Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin.

From there, he spent two years as executive chef at the Radisson Riverwalk in downtown Tampa before moving to Bellarte in the summer of 2001. The restaurant is located inside the new, 11,000-square-foot Radisson Hotel and Conference Center.

Inside, it feels like a neighborhood place, with apron-clad Ralph joking with the patrons. But it looks much classier, with clean white linen and expensive china, waiters dressed in black and white, and a bar that snakes across the room.

We started with drinks. The Martini Tester ordered one called The Perfect Ten ($8) from a list of a dozen martinis, all different flavors. He was shit-faced within minutes, so I guess it really was perfect. However, the bartender failed my weird drink test: I asked for a Sidecar, a classic cocktail popular in the 1950s and made with lemon juice, Triple Sec and brandy. The waiter reported that the bartender had never heard of it, so I settled for my second choice, a Cosmopolitan ($7).

The restaurant carries an extensive selection of wine, ranging in price from $22 to $200 per bottle, with at least 16 wines offered by the glass for those of you who might want to expand your wine horizons without financially jumping off a cliff.

Along with the exotic wine list came an equally exotic menu.

We enjoyed the appetizers, crisp bread and salads almost more than the main dishes. A Caprese salad ($7) was simple but effective: big dollops of fresh mozzarella, set with fragrant tomatoes and a huge leaf of fresh-cut basil. Also a big hit was a more complex dish, a bowl of buttery lobster bisque ($7), spiked with Korbel Xs brandy, lobster meat resting like a claw-shaped island in the middle.

My favorite that evening was the Gorgonzola salad ($7), a big, showy assortment of the Italian aged cheese, arugula, endive and radicchio, served with grilled pears, rosemary-scented glazed walnuts and tomatoes, and showered with basil-and-shallot balsamic vinaigrette.

Another evening, we tried the crabmeat appetizer called bombolini, four round balls of fresh crabmeat, mini Tuscan doughnuts, served with a duo of sauces ($12). It was spectacularly subtle and tender inside, but its breading was too thin and flavorless. I still managed to eat the whole thing. We also noshed on a lemon calamari appetizer ($9) with a trio of dipping sauces, one spicy, one zesty and one creamy — an outstanding version of a classic dish.

We had mixed luck with the main dishes but gave the restaurant extra points for ambitious effort: On one visit, we tried grilled duck, glazed with Grand Marnier and served with a Sicilian scarlet orange reduction ($22). It was OK though I would have preferred breast meat to leg and thigh, and while the sauce was excellent, the dish needed more of it.

On another visit, we tried the chef's signature dish, seafood tiramisu, layered with veggie risotto cake on the bottom, then herbed lady fingers, crowned with a souffle made of lobster, jumbo lump crab and shrimp, topped with tarragon Hollandaise, and dusted with a porcini mushroom powder. The plate was drizzled with a creamed corn sauce ($19). The souffle itself was luscious — light and delicate, with a salty sea breeze flavor. But I found the ladyfingers upon which it sat too sweet and distracting.

An artfully assembled steak entree arrived with side dishes of creamy mashed potatoes topped with baby carrots, a healthy growth of steamed asparagus and the newest trend in produce: cute, genetically-altered, miniature baby summer squash, no bigger than a Gasparilla doubloon.

There was even a "delectable vegetarian platter" ($17), featuring grilled asparagus, artichoke hearts, red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, onions, yellow squash and fennel alongside an Umbrian black truffle risotto.

We were still to sample some of the restaurant's best fare, in the form of dessert. With the exception of a boring piece of cheesecake ($6), the half-dozen desserts, from Godiva cake ($6) to creme brulee ($7) we tested were exemplary. My favorite was chocolate terrine, ($6), a chocolate pate in two pieces, one creamier and more mousse-y and the other a superfine variety of chocolates that produces a densely rich result.

It looked like two pieces of muddy meatloaf, except they were sweetly savory and topped with an addictive raspberry sauce and fresh raspberries. It's one of the best desserts anywhere in the Bay area.

St. Pete is lucky to have attracted both the computer types and a chef of Ralph Sitero's caliber.

Contact Sara Kennedy at sara.kennedy or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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